A month ago, the cardinals returned to the backyard, the red males puffing out their breasts and the tan and red females flitting through the bushes. They seemed busier than ever, flashing red, singing songs, chasing tail. Last week, our large puppy Nimbus and I were sniffing around the backyard, further back than Nimbus had yet roamed. Nimbus surprised herself as she discovered the back fence. Sharp metal met curious snout, and a large cardinal flew towards the fence on the other side. I was amused and surprised. Nimbus was afraid, and then curious, and then predatory. The bright red cardinal looked as shocked as the overgrown puppy, and they each flew away as they could. This little flirtation with my own backyard produced in me a much-needed belly laugh.
The next morning, I went to see one of my favorite people in the world, the person who cuts and dyes my hair and has done so for years. This woman and my brother Matt are two of the most natural comedians I’ve ever met, and I have always loved that they crack themselves up as much as they amuse their interlocutors. As I did the public disrobing—glasses tucked away, earrings out, sweater off–, I noticed a small, stuffed cardinal on the hairdresser’s station. “What’s up with the cardinal?” I asked. “Nothing, really. They’re supposed to represent a sudden appearance of loved ones who have passed.” Well, I had never heard that before, and I immediately thought of my friend/hairdresser’s loss of a dear nephew and how comforting the thought of a cardinal could be.
Now that I’ve googled “cardinal” and learned all the things the internet will tell me about the cardinal (for example, it is the state bird of several states, and its population is not in danger), I see that the sense of comfort for the loss of loved ones is a top hit on the search engine. I’m always amazed at how not in the know I am. The “All About Birds” website tells us this about the Northern Cardinal: “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.” I was only going to copy and paste a line of this, but the description of the sights and sounds of cardinals proved irresistible. This idea that cardinals stay beautiful and stay put, whistling while they work, makes them close to ideal for representations of loved ones who have passed.
I’m not at all religious, don’t believe in the afterlife, and usually pooh-pooh signs and symbols that imply this kind of belief. (I want to make clear that I admire and respect others’ engagement with these spiritual questions. I was not raised in faith and still find it an unnatural posture for myself.) Not so last Thursday. I was all in. I mean, how many cardinals do you come across in an 18-hour span? The whole family, the surprise single cardinal, and then the stuffed fellow at the work station. It was too much. The cardinal at the back fence had to be my mother; he just had to. He had to be telling me something, anything, so that I could make sense of three random but interconnected events. But, nope, there was no celestial message, no pithy remark, no profound advice. Just a fence and a laugh. Maybe that’s all we get on some days, and it is enough.
I think my mother would find it deliciously ironic that we got a puppy, at my insistence, so that I could walk briskly for miles with a dog who wanted to walk, only to find that walking the dog ignited every arthritic wick in my shoulder. Now I dutifully pee and poop the dog in the backyard, while the less enthusiastic amblers in the family are left to trot the energetic gal around the neighborhood. I’m very much reminded of the one misbegotten adventure my family had with a dog when I was young. My mother most assuredly did not want another critter to care for, especially not beyond the seven children (eight born in eight years) she was already bathing, feeding, chauffeuring, teaching, scolding, and shepherding. The energetic puppy we adopted back then ended up, by our mother’s mandate, on seven daily walks—one with each child around our big block—to tire him out. I imagine the first three or four spins around the block were fun and the last three or four were forced marches, but I don’t remember too well. The canine experiment lasted under four months. Back at my house now, I just imagine my mother shaking her cardinal head, thinking, “Well, kid, you wanted a dog. Put your arthritic shoulder to the wheel.” And then I pick up more poop, toss it in a can, and move on.
But what of this need to understand the cardinal as something? The need to create the equation, cardinal = loved one. Of course, our reckoning with mortality inspires terror, sadness, nostalgia, tenderness—many of the emotions on the wintry side of life. Last week, my Intro to Spanish literature students grappled with Miguel de Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” trying to understand a village priest who busily keeps his parishioners believing while he himself does not trust in the notion of the afterlife. This week, we read many poems by Antonio Machado, digging into the sights, sounds, and textures of rural landscapes and their invocations of memory, longing, and death. This poem in particular struck the students as stark: Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos / Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita / son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos / para aguardar… Mas Ella no faltará a la cita. Loosely translated: We sat one day at the edge of the forest path / Our life is only time, and our only preoccupation / is the desperate position we occupy / to await… But She will not miss the date. For my students, this frank confrontation with death at our door appears premature and unnecessary. For me, there is something comforting about it, something that reminds us of the universality of passing, of the need to read into (maybe even over-read) the cardinal’s sudden appearance or constant presence. Surely, with others’ recent losses heaped on top of my own, I feel more keenly aware of the collective fragility and beauty of it all, and of the eternal need for poetry.
On some days, you just let the cardinals rule.